Roland – I’m blowing you a kiss!
Vanessa – I’m blowing you one back.
Angelina Jolie has a beautiful smile which turns an apparently stern and sometimes hollow face structure into a playful bright light. In her most recent film, By the Sea, which she directed and starred in alongside her husband Brad Pitt, we hardly see it. When it does appear, it offers relief but the scene quickly changes and that relief is gone.
Jolie and Pitt play a couple from New York in the 70s going through a very tough time in their 14-year marriage. Pitt’s character Roland takes Jolie’s Vanessa to a beautiful isolated spot on the French Riviera (they actually filmed in Malta) and rent a room in a hotel on top of a rocky hill. Nearby, there is only a bar and a grocery store.
Roland, a successful writer suffering from writer’s block, soon begins his holiday by drinking all day long – a habit that’s been going on for some time, apparently. Jolie, an ex-dancer, spends most of her days crying in her room, lying on the porch or going for lonely walks. Something terrible must have happened, right? But what?! When they are apart during the day, they are drowning. And when they are together at night, they can’t communicate.
The couple is torn between love and hate, between tears, alcohol, and a loss of their senses. We know that the French food, which we’d love to savour right about now, must be tasteless to them and that a swim or shower will not wash away what is haunting them. At the same time, it is curious that Vanessa puts on make-up every day when she knows it will soon wash away with her tears. Is this due to social habits or hope?
Through the arrival of a newlywed couple (played by the fun Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) in the next room, Roland and Vanessa start to become obsessed which their new neighbours’ love life. Will this obsession help them to start dealing with theirs?
This film is simply gorgeous. I am talking about the image: cinematographer Christian Berger (also known for his work on The Piano Teacher) shows us an exquisite corner of the world with calming waters, Southern French architecture, 70s fashion – a village which should inspire so much peace but is now the home of these torn up souls. The mood is completed by Jon Hutman’s elegant production design and Ellen Mirojnick’s costume design. The set could serve a fashion shoot, if only the models were not so unhappy. I must also compliment the editing and visual choices in general.
The script chooses to focus on the couple’s long stay at the hotel, and nothing else. The days come and go, the lighting changes, the outfits too, and at the same time everything remains the same, like the sea’s regular tides. The dialogues that Pitt and Jolie conduct in French with their neighbours are interesting, and I appreciated them going for the language. As a small note, the word “relou” was slipped into Melanie Laurent’s character’s speech – was that word already used in the 70s? (it is a soft vulgar word meaning “annoying”).
There are some original choices in the way the couple’s intimacy is portrayed and the underlying stories they tell, with Roland constantly trying to protect Vanessa’s sunglasses by placing them down the right way on the table, or when the couple moves the furniture around as soon as they are alone in their hotel room: we imagine that they’ve been to a fair share of hotel rooms around the world, and that the first thing they like to do is place the writing table in front of the window to help Roland’s inspiration.
The Jolie-Pitt couple has wonderful chemistry, of course. We know that that intimacy exists, which adds to the audience’s frustration at why they can’t quite work it out, why she can’t express herself.
I am not sure what could have been cut, because I imagine Jolie wanted us to feel the agonising length of what the characters were feeling. For me, the end of the film was the beginning of what I would have liked to see. At the same time, their fights were not long enough: I just wanted to see someone really slap the other.
By the Sea feels quite experimental at times and perhaps goes on for a bit too long, but what it does do is make me want to escape my city and live by the sea for a while.